Even while major Brutalist structures face preservation issues — like Marcel Breuer’s Central Library in Atlanta, whose fate is being decided now — the aesthetic of these concrete-based buildings continues to gain in popularity. This month, Phaidon released This Brutal World, celebrating this 20th-century postwar architecture. The book is by art director Peter Chadwick, who is behind the @BrutalHouse Twitter account and This Brutal House website, and is billed as a “curated visual manifesto featuring some of the most powerful and awe-inspiring brutalist architecture ever built.”
In an introductory essay, Chadwick describes his personal interest in Brutalism, rooted in his experiences growing up amid England’s concrete giants:
I became increasingly fascinated by the visionary buildings and bold housing estates that grew out of the bombed remnants of London’s east end. Not always a comfortable fit in their postwar Victorian surroundings, these new concrete buildings and social-housing developments looked, at times, as though they had descended from another planet to colonize Earth.
This Brutal World is mostly images, over 320 in black and white, accompanied by quotes that aren’t all about architecture. For example, Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota is joined by Philip Glass’s statement that “a new language requires a new technique. If what you’re saying doesn’t require a new language, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new.” Glass might have been commenting more on minimalist music, yet it does hum well with Breuer’s strikingly geometric bell tower.
Brutalism is generally dated as spanning the 1950s to the ’70s, but silhouettes of the 2007 New Museum by SANAA and the similarly blocky De Rotterdam towers by OMA from 2013 also make the cut. “Brutalism lives on in so much contemporary architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” Chadwick writes, and his selections range from expected inclusions by Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, to surprising choices like Zaha Hadid and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Each image is only accompanied by its name, location, and date, without any details on whether or not it still stands, or its current use. It’s a lovely book, and may persuade a few ambivalent souls about Brutalism’s beauty, but it could also have raised a larger argument for saving these buildings. Although they photograph great, and do swell on social media, their streaked concrete and monolithic stylings can be difficult to protect. Last year, SOSBrutalism launched to call attention to vanishing examples of this architectural style, which has already experienced the loss of England’s Birmingham Central Library and Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. Currently, to name just a couple of examples, Breuer’s American Press Institute in Virginia is slated for razing to make way for condos, while a blocky former police headquarters in Winnipeg had a local council recently vote in favor of its destruction. Hopefully the aesthetic revival of Brutalism can in turn rally preservation enthusiasm for these distinct heavyweights of 20th-century architecture.
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